A basic flaw in many people’s thinking is that they can go to court and “talk to the judge about it” or “work things out with the prosecutor.” They believe that because they are not “one of those criminals” and their “case is the exception,” they can convince the prosecutor or judge to drop the criminal charges against them. The truth is very different. Due to Zero Tolerance policing, just about everyone who has been caught doing something the least bit illegal is now ending up in the courtroom. As a result, your general good character is not going to convince a judge or prosecutor to give you a break. When you walk into the courtroom, no matter who you are, the judge and prosecutor see you as just another criminal defendant, another piece of meat to feed to The Beast.
First, courtrooms are more crowded than ever before, and judges and prosecutors are often overworked and overwhelmed. America’s criminal justice system has grown into a huge industry – the “prison-industrial complex” — that provides millions of jobs and massive amounts of tax revenue for states and counties. Criminal justice is the one area besides the military where politicians today can advocate for bigger government and more taxes and get elected.
Second, prosecutors and judges no longer have the independence to exercise discretion in prosecution and sentencing that they had a generation ago. Powerful special interest groups spend millions of dollars monitoring conviction rates of judges and prosecutors across the country. Officials who do not live up to the conviction targets of organizations such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) face a very real threat of losing the next election. If you appear in their courtroom and they show you any leniency, their jobs may be on the line.
Third, task forces target selected behavior for aggressive prosecution, trial, and sentencing. Under Project Safe Childhood, United States Attorney General Roberto Gonzales recently called for “an arrest, a thorough investigation and a merciless prosecution” of alleged sex offenders. [Prepared Remarks of Attorney General Roberto R. Gonzales at the Project Safe Childhood Conference, Washington, D.C., 12/04/2006.] While task forces and special interest groups target criminal behavior that most Americans would agree is undesirable, Good Decent Law-Abiding Citizens are finding themselves victimized by these zealous efforts to reduce crime.
For example, John is a middle-aged man who owns a pool-supply company. He invites his girlfriend and her teenage daughter to move in with him. The daughter has a history of discipline problems at school and a juvenile record for drug use and petty theft. One day she tells her school counselor that John has sexually molested her. Although there is no physical evidence and no witnesses, the counselor decides that molestation may have occurred and contacts the police. In full view of his neighbors, John is arrested, handcuffed, and taken to jail, charged with aggravated child molestation and sexual battery. John maintains his innocence, but the prosecutor has a “no drop” policy for these types of crimes and takes him to trial. The jury finds him not guilty.
Though vindicated in court, John’s customers have dwindled away, his business is failing, and his legal fees have left him deep in debt. His neighbors still whisper about him behind his back, and his health has declined due to the stress of the trial. John has no legal recourse because the law does not allow compensation from the government that brought the charges, or from the school, the counselor, or the teenager for making false accusations against him.